Cristian Ciopron on the Transfiguration
March 12, 2010
Cristian Ciopron is a Romanian physician who writes the blog Din viaţã. For about a year now, I have corresponded with him by e-mail. The following essay is a revision of a recent post to his blog; I asked him to send me an English version of it, and have edited it with a view to improving the English grammar, but not to changing its content.
The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor
The Transfiguration of Jesus occurs in the Synoptic Gospels. It is an event narrated only by the Synoptics, as it belongs to their logic and to their line of discourse about who Jesus of Nazareth is. These Gospels narrate the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor as a sequence of events, the first of them being a visible manifestation of Christ’s identity, something which must be interpreted in conjunction with the other signs. I presume that the Gospels are speaking about a visible light, a visible reality, not about a metaphorical light, such as the light of knowledge or understanding; in fact, each synoptic author tries to convey the exact impression made by the Lord’s transfigured luminosity, and seems to indicate a visible light, something to be seen, in the proper sense of the word. I believe that the Gospels speak about a light pertaining to the domain of visibility, not to that of knowledge.
According to a certain fashionable reading of the Transfiguration narrative, the core of the episode is to be found in the visible signs of Christ’s glory—making the other events more or less redundant, mere restatements of what was already shown in the first step. In my view, it would be more true to say that the progression of events on Mt. Tabor shows a patent crescendo, from the radiance of Christ’s face to, secondly, the testimony of the Old Testament prophets, and then to the real climax of the story, the Father’s concise utterance. The three elements join together, pointing to a conclusion. All of this has a very synoptic ring to it, and the event was indeed one which all the Synoptic Evangelists thought deserved a quite detailed narration and found to be useful for their purposes.
The three signs of Jesus’ filial quality (visible radiance; the prophets’ testimony; God’s voice) lead to one another, and do not merely repeat the same message, but the first two are completed and given their deepest meaning only in the third. The Father’s declaration provides the key to what the Apostles have witnessed. The radiance of Jesus’ face stemmed from his prayer (cf. St. Luke 9: 28-29) and led to, or prepared, the Father’s declaration.
The Transfiguration, as an event narrated in its threefold, synoptic form, is one of the Gospels centering upon Christ’s identity—linked not only with the Caesarea Philippi event, which it follows, but also with the Baptism theophany. It illustrates what Stephen Williams has called the “theology (and language) of sonship deployed in the Synoptics.” 
The Transfiguration completes the itinerary begun at Caesarea Philippi, but it mirrors Christ’s first public consecration—his Baptism in the waters of the Jordan. The testimony of St. John the Baptist is mirrored by the testimony brought by the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament. St. Basil (in his work On Baptism) notes that the baptismal water is “the likeness of the cross, and of death, and of the grave, and of resurrection from the dead”; and, in the same writing, St. Basil repeats that baptism by water is “the likeness of the cross and of death.” On this large scale, both of these events in the life of Jesus, both his Baptism and his Transfiguration, point to Jesus’ mission and to his redemptive death.
St. Basil understands and interprets the baptism of Christians by Jesus’ Cross and redemptive death. In this view, not only does the Transfiguration correspond to Christ’s Baptism, but his very Baptism announces and foretells the Passion, the baptismal water being the symbol St. Basil says it is. (In baptism, Christians are “planted together with Christ in the likeness of his death.”)
At the Jordan, Jesus was shown to the world; on Mt. Tabor, he is shown to three chosen disciples, and they are required to keep secret what they have witnessed. So what is disclosed here is of a secret nature, and this secret is temporary; they are not to make it public until he conquers death—“till the Son of man is risen from the dead,” writes St. Mark.
To whom does the Father address his words on Mt. Tabor? He speaks, presumably, to the frightened disciples.
The “synoptic look” of the Tabor episode is striking—it is very much something that a synoptic writer would narrate. The Transfiguration belongs very much in a synoptic frame, in the intention of a Christology “from below.” Equally obvious is that the evangelists describe, in material terms, a physical, visible light, seen by the apostles with their bodily eyes. Each evangelist is striving to convey a sensorial impression of Christ’s appearance; they do not employ it as a metaphor for a higher knowledge, but as a description of what the three apostles physically saw.
The Transfiguration mirrors Christ’s Baptism, announces his Crucifixion, and has a pedagogic function: it shows the apostles an “image of the kingdom,” a “symbol of the future glory” (St. Theophylact), fulfilling the promise made. It foretells the Resurrection, the glory and the kingdom, before the Crucifixion. The Fathers call this vision a symbol of the glory, an image of the kingdom: more a foretaste than the unveiling of a camouflaged reality. (St. Gregory the Dialogist doesn’t share this interpretation; he believes that the kingdom which Jesus had promised that some of those standing there would see is the Church.) The Transfiguration is linked with the Baptism, with the Crucifixion, and with the Resurrection.
St. Luke’s narration is very precise; he writes that Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, and was transfigured during his prayer. St. Luke is also the only evangelist to indicate the content of Jesus’ conversation with the two prophets.
The Gospels give precise attestation to the visual-sensible nature of the experience on Tabor. The luminousness is not, for the synoptic authors, a metaphor, but a visual characteristic. The data pertain to the seen, bodily nature of the experience. The Taboric episode has to be understood in terms of its connections, in its relation to the Holy Spirit’s descent at the Baptism in the Jordan (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22, John 1:32-34)—both events prefiguring the Christian sacraments of anointment, chrismation and consecration—and to the Crucifixion. The error made by some consists in insolating this mystagogical event, which leads to its de-signification. In isolation, it can no longer be understood; it comes to mean nothing, or wrong meanings are arbitrarily assigned to it. The visual splendor is (only) the preparation for the Cross: it is Jesus’ strengthening, and the Apostles’ education. Here the Lord chose to instruct his disciples by glory, which some fathers call the glory of his resurrection, and, we hope, of our own as well, and which other fathers call the divine glory. The Transfiguration has a function in the economy of this redeeming passion. As a manifestation of Jesus’ power or hidden substance, the episode on Tabor is correlated with the notion of the economic passion; it places Christ’s mundane itinerary into a sovereign perspective, appearing as the specification of the Messiah’s place in the economy; the references are to redemption-history and to sonship, showing the unity of the Covenants in order to make fully evident the Nazarene’s dignity as Son. In the narratives of the Synoptic Gospels, the transfigured Jesus’ visible characteristics do not possess more significance than the prophets’ presence, the heavenly voice, the apostles’ confusion. With the transfigured face as overture, the account ascends towards its full meaning.
There is, in other words, something else going on in the Transfiguration, besides Jesus’ new radiance, which serves to designate him as Son. The Taboric episode belongs rather to a Christology “from below,” ascending. It is not by chance that only the Synoptics see the need to report it. The Tabor event belongs to the Messianic order; it doesn’t belong to a Christology of the Godhead, a Christology descending “from above”; rather, it belongs to a Christology of the glorified humanity, permeated by God, to a Christology of sonship, of the One chosen, manifested as Son. The Tabor event is exemplary for the New Testament’s Christology of sonship; a synoptic logic underlines it, an understanding “from below” motivates its presence and the Synoptics’ unanimity.
This enigmatic event forms, in fact, a counterpoise to the Spirit’s descent at Jesus’ baptism in Jordan; it is also one of the few passages where Jesus’ face and physical appearance have a role.
The disciples will again see a changed, transfigured Jesus: after his Resurrection. The resurrected Jesus is again a transfigured Jesus, one on whose face and body shine and radiate the deepest layers of reality; though none of the accounts of his appearances after the Resurrection mention a resemblance to his luminosity on Mt. Tabor. Anyway, what happened on Mt. Tabor already points to Christ’s victory on the Cross, that joyful victory that resounds in St. Paul’s letters, in the Acts and in the Book of Revelation.
The Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor is one of the best-attested episodes in Jesus’ life, described by all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew (17: 1-13), Mark (9: 2-9), and Luke (9: 28-36). Newer exegetes pretend not to see what correspondence all these synoptic accounts could have with historical fact. The accounts, are, though, remarkably at unison (with St. Luke’s being the most detailed).
Bede says that this glory was the glory of the resurrected flesh: “Our Savior then, when transfigured, did not lose the substance of real flesh, but showed forth the glory of his own or of our future resurrection; for such as he then appeared to the Apostles, he will after the judgment appear to all his elect.” The Fathers insist that Jesus’ Transfiguration is not a real transformation, a change of his shape, but only an adding of light, and that he did not change or modify his figure, that the Taboric event brings no modification in Jesus; this, probably, in order to prevent interpretations of an Adoptionist bent. But St. Thomas’s comments in the Catena for St. Matthew (XVII, vv 1—4) suggest why another misinterpretation has to be avoided as well: “He appeared to the eyes of the Apostles such as he will appear at the Judgment Day. Let us not imagine, though, that he left his first shape and his ordinary figure, and that he left the true body … to take a spiritual or aerial body.… Because the Evangelist (St. Matthew) describes the brightness of his face and the whiteness of his raiment, the substance was not, therefore, destroyed; only the brightness was changed. Doubtless the Lord was transformed in this glory which he will wear when he will come to establish his kingdom; but this transformation gave him a new brightness, without changing the features nor the nature of his face. Let us suppose that his body has become a spiritual body; was the nature of his raiment changed as well? It became so white, says another Evangelist (Mark), that no fuller on earth could give it a similar whiteness. Now objects of this kind have a bodily form, can be touched, and are not something spiritual and aerial.…”
Light, to be visible, has to be an electromagnetic wave within a certain range of wavelengths. Uncreated light, if taken in a sensorial sense, as in the Mt. Tabor event, would mean uncreated electromagnetic waves.
Yet, if exegetes do not believe that Christ’s substance was changed or transformed at the Transfiguration, their explanations tend nonetheless to imply that the change was in him, and that it was real, not that it was in the Apostles’ capacity to perceive what they couldn’t seize before. So, Christ does not change his substance on Mt Tabor; nor do his Apostles. There is, in exchange, a real, objective, physical transformation in Christ’s shining. (The mere fact that Jesus separates himself with his three disciples from the rest of the group suggests that the event is an objective one, accessible to witnesses, not an interior change in a few chosen who are thus made apt to see what they couldn’t see before.)
It is interesting that St. Thomas insists that Jesus kept the substance of his body and in this very Body he shone, and in this body he showed the eschatological luminosity of the resurrected. This implies that the Resurrection’s light is accessible to human beings, such as the Apostles, in their present condition, provided it is shown to them.
Besides, the Gospels and Church Fathers not only fail to mention any preliminary, preparatory mystical improvement in the Apostles’ spiritual condition, necessary for seeing what they couldn’t see before—but they insist on the Apostles’ fear (“for they were sore afraid,” St. Mark) and on St. Peter’s clumsiness and uninspired proposal (“for he wist not what to say”).
The accounts of the Transfiguration speak almost as much about the Apostles as about the Christ.
Hardly the condition of the elect when they will be deemed to see God in Heaven, and hardly a very exquisite condition of spiritual perfection. The Apostles behave as if they are still on this side of the fence—frightened, confused, clumsy, uninspired (and the interpreters speculate on St. Peter’s obtuseness and not very generous reasons in making such a proposal as he did). The Apostles’ behavior does not look like the apotheosis of the elect made fit to see God Himself in heaven. On the contrary, their encounter with the Kingdom leads to fear, confusion and lack of inspiration. St. Jerome gives a harsh reading to St. Peter’s uninspired intentions; so does Rabanus. Origen is more indulgent. St. Luke says the Apostles were sleepy. St. John of Damascus concludes that the disciples hadn’t yet received the fullness of the Holy Ghost.
The same Bede, quoted by St. Thomas in his Catena Aurea (on St. Mark), says that the Transfiguration is a new revealing of the mystery of the Holy Trinity—the Holy Spirit appears as a “bright cloud.” (Bede also says that, at the Resurrection, the elect will be sheltered “by the glorious rays of the Holy Spirit.”)
Some Fathers believe that the Transfiguration serves as an instruction about the life of the resurrected. In a gloss in his Catena for St. Matthew, St. Thomas observes that the Transfiguration mirrors Christ’s Baptism because, in fact, the Transfiguration mirrors the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the second regeneration, Baptism was the first. St. Thomas analyzes the relation of “the mystery of this second regeneration, which must take place at the Resurrection, when our body will rise again,” with “the mystery of the first (regeneration), which takes place in baptism, where the soul is reborn to new life.” So the Transfiguration stands in relationship with Baptism via the Resurrection. St. Thomas calls the Transfiguration “the mysterious symbol of the second regeneration,” and believes that the whole Trinity appears (the Holy Spirit appearing as the cloud). The Holy Spirit gives, in baptism, innocence; in the resurrection, shining and refreshment.
Christ’s transfiguration as an overabundant radiance announces God’s nearness; one is reminded of Exodus 34:29, where the skin of Moses’ face shone “because he had been talking with God.” Jesus’ new luminosity is the luminosity of one who stands before God, and also something higher. St. John of Damascus makes this comparison, but adds that the shining of glory came to Moses from an exterior principle, while for the Lord it was “the inborn splendor of the divine glory.” St. John of Damascus is the interpreter who gives the most “from above” reading: “the Word and human nature have one and the same glory,” the body shining with the glory of God. Yet, on a second look, St. John only expresses forcefully what all the other fathers grant: that Christ shines on Tabor with his glory, which is also the glory of his Resurrection, of the kingdom, and, to some degree, of the future resurrection of the elect. (And, with this, we have arrived at another issue, the theology of glory in the Exodus, 33: 19-20, where the holy Moses sees God’s glory, but not his face. In this sense, Jesus shows on Mt. Tabor what was shown to Moses: God’s glory.)
A threefold testimony: Christ’s shining, the prophets’ presence and conversation, and the Father’s voice. There is an obvious gradation: it begins with Christ in his own obvious excellence, it continues with the Old Testament’s testimony (and an irrefutable one, bringing the two most esteemed Old Testament prophets), showing him to be in accord with what has been given before, and it concludes with the Father himself. So Christ’s status is “proved” (a) by himself, (b) by the Law and Prophets, and (c) by the Father. This constitutes the threefold testimony about the Christ’s filial dignity.
Stephen Williams writes that “according to Matthew and Mark, the voice heard on the mount of transfiguration referred to ‘the Son whom I love’ (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7). In Luke, it is ‘my Son, whom I have chosen’ (9:35). ln all these cases, we are directed back to the baptism of Jesus Christ, and the words heard when Jesus was baptised are commonly taken to echo the words of Isaiah 42:1: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight’ and Psalm 2:7: ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’”
Modern exegetes have taken note of the pedagogic interpretation given by the Fathers: the Transfiguration is understood more in terms of the benefit of the faithful, of its utility for the Apostles’ instruction, as something meant to instruct and edify the Apostles and then, in due time, the rest of the faithful, than in the dynamic of Christ’s own life.
The first text to propose such a reading of the Taboric event is 2 Peter 1:16-18. The testimony offered by the author also implicitly links Transfiguration with Baptism in the river Jordan. Both at 2 Peter 1:17 and at Matthew 3:17, the Father’s declaration is addressed to the bystanders (at the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, the Father’s words are addressed to Jesus himself). The two ends of Jesus’ public career are thus guarded and confirmed by similar events of an epiphanic nature, by two proclamations of sonship. St. Luke’s narrative account of this seems the one most freed from the common pattern, since it gives the only indices we possess about Jesus’ inner life during this event—Luke’s Gospel is the only one that mentions Jesus’ prayer and the topic of his conversation with the two exemplars of the Old Covenant. In Luke, we get a glimpse of the Transfiguration within the dynamic of the Messiah’s life: the event takes place while he is praying, and we are given some idea about Jesus’ interaction with the two prophets.
The Synoptics narrate the Baptism (St. John preserves the Forerunner’s testimony, John 1:32-33); they also, unlike John, narrate the Transfiguration. St. Luke suggests that the Transfiguration is Jesus’ preparation for his suffering to come, a strengthening, similar to the one in the garden of Gethsemane. Moses and Elijah are summoned to confirm that Jesus is the Master for whom they have worked. Jesus instructs his Apostles, not only by showing them the divine glory, but also by linking it with his own future destiny and that of the elect, the glory of the Resurrection and of the Kingdom. There are multiple aspects to be seen in this event: there is pedagogy, instruction for the Apostles and for future believers, and, in Jesus’ prayer and his conversation about the approaching Passion, one perceives what may be called, in the words of one Latin Father, “the glory of the Cross.”
 Cf. Stephen Williams, “The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Part 2) — Approaching Sonship,” Themelios 28.2 (Spring 2003), 16-27.
 On the resurrection appearances, cf. H. B. Swete, The Appearances of Our Lord after the Passion, 1908.
 Williams, op. cit.